Saturday, 17 January 2015

Do You Know Who You Are?

Have you noticed that some people go through this life with a clear idea of who they are and what they are about? Others go through life not knowing who they are, just going from one day to the next, one situation to the next, frequently surprised by the demands life places on them.

When I was a young man I signed up to a government scheme designed to train people in various trades and skills that might give them permanent employment. Five days a week, for six months, I went to a large industrial unit that had been divided into ‘sections,’ each section dedicated to a different skill. There was carpentry, stone-masonry and bricklaying, vehicle maintenance, and more. Even some of the staff in the offices were brushing up on their skills.

It was a useful place to work if you had any practical problems. After a weekend of Destroy-It-Yourself, these different sections would get their visits from people seeking advice and guidance on whatever project they had in hand. Both trainees and instructors might, at some point, wander into an adjacent section with a question, a cry for help. They would seek out the instructor and, if that person wasn’t there, the most senior trainee, who was bound to have some ideas.

I worked in the painting and decorating section. One day two instructors walked in and asked to see our instructor. He was away from the section so they asked for the senior trainee. I had seen this happen many times but I was not prepared for what happened next; everyone pointed at me! The two men walked over and explained their dilemma. A wall had been demolished making two rooms into one, an arch had been constructed and they wanted to know how to wallpaper around the arch.

As they spoke I gathered my thoughts. I took them over to a chalk-board and explained, with diagrams, that there were two ways of doing it, depending on the aesthetics, and they had to choose. I had done it! I had instructed instructors. It must have worked out since they didn’t come back and complain. But, until they came over and spoke to me, I didn’t know I was the senior trainee on the floor. If the subject had come up in conversation I might well have realised, and said, ‘I suppose that’s me.’ But I had failed to realise the full implication of what I was until I was faced with the challenge of being what I was.

We can be like that in our Christian lives. You attend church, listen with interest to sermons, participate in small group discussions, and settle into a Christian routine. You don’t know it, but you are becoming increasingly competent in Christian ways. One day someone suggests you might want to take on a responsibility at church, perhaps teaching, or a leadership role. ‘Who, me!’ You are stunned that someone should think of you in that way. You don’t know who you are and face the challenge of stepping up, or stepping back.

Or someone in work, or at the school gates, begins a conversation about religion, asks serious and thoughtful questions. People know that you go to church and all eyes turn on you, as though you might have something to say. You know you should be able to say something sensible, even wise, and you are faced with the choice; step up, or step back.

Where are you in the course of your Christian life? Maybe you have just started the course and right now you are not that senior trainee. God has so much to show you, to teach you, and perhaps you will be able to step up sooner than you think. Maybe you are along some way on your course, you are enjoying the journey, not thinking too far ahead. Maybe, like me, you are at a place where it is no longer theory but you haven’t realised it. It might be a formal invitation to lead. It could be a less experienced Christian looking for a spiritual friend. It could be an opportunity to share your faith, listen with sympathy and counsel with wisdom.

Others are looking to you now, so what will you do?

Do you know who you are?

Monday, 12 January 2015

Everyone Wants to be a Reformer

There is far too much individualism in the church today and not enough loyalty to the body, with all its faults and failings. I sigh when I hear yet another conversation peppered with, 'the trouble with the church.' The trouble with that statement is that you are talking about yourself when you say it. It is ironic that people will insist that the church is 'the people, not the building,' but then stand apart, as though they are not part of that people, and say, 'the trouble with the church.'

I have lost count of the individuals I know who appear to be waiting for the church to catch up with them. These are often the ones who go off on a tangent, start a church in the bottom of a skip, or up a tree, or some such place, and then land on a town or city and, without so much as a nod to what is already there, upset the established community with their 'anointing.' Then, sadly, they don't go where the need is greatest but where the takings are richest.

Everyone, it seems, wants to be a Reformer, with the church, in their minds, bent to their particular way of looking at things as they start again, again, again. Like Petrocelli's house (that dates me) their church is all foundation and no superstructure, all fundamentals, no discipleship and growing. I have friends who have come out of cults and who look back with regret at what they were caught up in, yet look forward with reproach at the church that doesn't quite fit with the model of church in their imagination. But its the only place they will find that church, in their imagination.

The church is a saved people, not a correct people. We are not always right, we are right with God because of Christ.

Have you been hurt? Felt rejected? Join the club, we all of us who have been around long enough know about the 'happenings' in church and have felt that way too. I have been defamed, lied to and lied about, misunderstood, looked on with suspicion, and even driven out of one church whose members still treat me with contempt because of the lies of a leader. I have punched the wall, screamed at the sky, and reproved the offenders in my time. But one thing I find, the church is God's plan.

It includes some right clowns, numptys, and downright mischief-makers, but it is God's plan. Even among those who seem like they pretty much have it together, there are blind spots, prejudices, compromises, phobias, fears, and failures. There are 'heart Christians' and 'head Christians,' those who insist on one form of church organisation over another, and those who seem beyond organising, those who steam ahead without a thought for the effect they have, and those who are so timid they would never grow if they weren't discipled and led..

Leaders are the best and the worst of us all. They are due double honour the Bible tells us, and they do sterling work that goes mostly unnoticed and unappreciated. They are also clay vessels, like the rest of us. From their position of leadership, they can hide their failings behind pulpits, agendas, and programmes. They can make enormous sacrifices for the good of the church, and they can demand unreasonable loyalty when what they need is love and friendship in their frailty. They disappoint us mostly because we expected too much of them in the first place.

I am reminded of two things about the church. Christ loved the church and gave himself for her, and Paul, for all the trouble 'the church' gave him, wrote of her with affection and pride. At a time when every religious story seems negative, and every negative story, turns people against Christians, we should be proud of the church, fiercely defending her, being honest about her faults but vocal about her virtues. She is the people I meet every Sunday morning, the eyes I look into as they look back at me searching for assurance and hope, the encouragers and those seeking encouragement, the sacrificial servants of the saints, the quiet workers, house group leaders, Sunday Club teachers, evangelists and door-knockers, welcomers, deacons, elders, preachers, teachers, friends and helpers who care so much they make a difference.

If we stopped looking at the church as an institution, which is not what I mean when I used the word established, and started looking at it as one church with many facets, and those made up of flawed, broken, sinners, then we will learn to exercise more patience, have more ambition for her. In all that, there still must be guardianship and correction, challenges to error, and restoration to truth, but it is family business and leaving the family helps no one.

My point (see previous post Not Another Church) stands, in that the church is established in an area and those coming in should have the Christian decency to talk to those 'established' churches, while those 'established' churches should do all they can to encourage any legitimate initiative to to further the work of the kingdom. There is a good model to follow in Acts 15.

I was asked recently what lessons I had learned from leadership.

I have learned that just because I think something is a good idea doesn't mean God thinks it is. Some problems could be solved simply by realising that one thing.

I have learned that God speaks through the leadership to the church and through the church to the leadership. We are in this together and when we walk away (and I have had my moments) we simply disqualify ourselves from that process and end up justifying our non-involvement by insisting that God speaks through neither because the world and his wife are apostate; but he speaks through me and my mates at the bottom of this skip where we are starting again without all the fuss of accountability.

I have learned that local church is the hope of our families, friends, neighbours, community, city and world. Here is where God speaks to us and through us to everyone else.

I have learned that its hard to let go of my own cherished ideas, to serve a bigger cause by putting unity above the flavour I prefer. But no one said it would be easy, on the contrary, we have been sufficiently warned. Christianity is not for wimps that's for sure. What was said is that it would be worth it.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Not Another Church!

MegaphoneThey were standing on the street corner handing out leaflets, and ‘preaching’ to passers-by. Their dark suits, white shirts, and conservative ties made them easily identifiable. I went over to speak to them. Declining the offer of a tract, I assured them that I was already a Christian and had just come over to say hello. I told them the name of my church and they told me they were with a local Brethren congregation.

“Have you been involved in some of the city-wide inter-church initiatives?” I asked, already knowing the answer I was likely to get. They hadn’t heard of it and looked puzzled at the idea that there should be any initiative beyond that of their own church.

A friend had a similar experience in the city. Seeing someone handing out Christian literature he, like me, went over for a chat. The man had come to the city from a Brethren congregation in the south of England.

“Are you working alongside the Brethren churches in the city?” my friend asked.

“Are there Brethren churches here?” was the response. In other words, these two groups, both from the same denomination and tradition, apparently knew nothing of each other’s existence. You might say this is typical of these particular believers and there is, indeed, an unhealthy exclusivity about Brethren churches. But this failure to acknowledge other churches is not, by any means, confined to them.

One of the questions that come up in conversation with my Christian friends is, why do groups come into our city to establish churches where we already have so many? Why don’t they go to areas outside the city that desperately need churches? And why do these incomers target the areas of our city that are already well served by established and, it may be said, well-heeled congregations? Why don’t they go to the areas where the need is greatest?

It might be argued that there is something symbiotic about the whole business.Go where the success is and you will be more likely to succeed. It certainly can cause bad feeling, leading to charges of ‘sheep-stealing’ as a new congregation benefits in part from the disaffection felt by some in an established church. It also encourages church-hopping, where those who find the long-term challenges of being part of a Christian community too much, and the attraction of a new start irresistible.

So why do ‘incomers’ take it for granted that the place to be is where everybody else is already established? Is it simply laziness? Is there a conscious attempt to begin by plundering the congregations of other churches? I think it is more basic and more troubling still. There is an attitude prevalent across Evangelical and Charismatic churches that says God is moving in our day, but he is only moving in and through us, through me and mine.

There has been, in my almost thirty years as a Christian, a catchphrase trotted out every time any innovation is introduced and challenged in the church, from guitars in Sunday services, to exercising the more spectacular spiritual gifts, to claims of prophetic anointing; ‘God is doing a new thing.’ It has become a trope in some circles, even a test of orthodoxy. In light of it almost anything may be instituted as from God, and Christians dare not question the new thing God is doing at pain of being regarded as dead in their tradition.

It is this attitude, this high-handed approach, I suggest, that motivates the churches that seek to establish themselves where there is ample Christian activity. Its not that they don’t see other churches, nor that they don’t appreciate the need outside and in other parts of the city. Its that they perceive a need where churches are already established because they judge these churches as somehow falling short, of not being the answer the new church is just bound to be because, in them, God is doing a new thing.

With this attitude they fall back on that other old saw, ‘We must get back to first century church!’ It is a model of church that is more real in their imagination than ever it was in this world, but its what they are determined to achieve anyway. It as though they have never read the New Testament and never seen the problems prevalent even in the first century. I am reminded of the saying that ‘the good old days,’ when they were happening, were known as ‘these trying times.’

Having decided that the rich, actually well-served, area of the city is in need of saving from itself, they view it as virgin territory, a mission field. They convince themselves that everyone there should be pleased that this group of pioneer Christians should choose to turn up here, pitch their tent among us and bless us with the message they bring, and with the innovations they insist are better than our bad habits and dead traditions.

There is a naivety about the whole business, certainly, but we must not be sentimental about it. It is damaging to the body of Christ, a threat to the unity in the Spirit that Paul calls for, and it creates and perpetuates bad feeling between churches. Because, make no mistake, if this ‘new thing’ survives, becomes established, especially if it moves from community centres to a permanent building,from a mission-minded group to a mature Christian congregation, others will come after them and despise them as much as they once despised others, seeing in the now established church dead tradition. They will, one day, find themselves asking the questions addressed here and perhaps fail to see the irony.

Paul writes to the troubled Corinthian church, “No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval.” (1 Cor.11:19)

Factions are regrettable, deplorable, but they do serve to test us and distinguish those who are faithful to God’s purposes. This is not, however, an endorsement of factions in the church. In his letter to the Philippian church Paul writes of the view mature Christians should take of things, going on to say, “And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.” (Philippians 3:15-16)

The writer to the Hebrews cautions us against laying foundations where they are already laid (Hebrews 6:1) and Paul writes:

‘It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. Rather it is written, “Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.”’ (Ro.15:20-21)

There is a troubling trend in the 21st century church that sees Christians despise anything and everything that is ‘established’ and go off to follow their own Christian way. ‘You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian’ they insist. But you do! Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian, but to ‘be a Christian’ you have to be part of the wider Christian community, be churched, part of a growing group of believers. This individualism is singularly unbiblical, spiritually unhealthy, largely uncalled for, but all-too-often encouraged by churches that set themselves up over and against established churches in the name of innovation, novelty, and some ‘new thing’ they imagine they alone have got hold of.

If you are coming to our city you are most welcome, but don’t seek to establish what is already here. Rather, put your weight behind what is already established. If you do see a need then have the courteously to meet and share your vision with other church leaders in the city. Maybe you can work together with them, benefit from their experience, gain strength from their support. Best of all, go where the need is greatest, where the Word of God is not well established. There is a mission field outside our large conurbations, as well as in the poorer areas within them. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Darwin, Creationism, and the Galileo Question

I used to sell encyclopaedias for a living, among the many and varied jobs in my life. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, to be precise. The cheapest set was around £1,100 and the leather-bound set some £3,500. Of course, that was a long time ago, I don’t know how much the last ever printed sets, produced in 2010, would have cost.

For that sort of money you might expect some pretty accurate and trustworthy, unbiased and factual articles. In a piece in The Atlantic announcing the end of printed copies Katherine Mangu-Ward observed,

“The beginning of the end for the authoritative print encyclopedia was [a] 2005 Nature study, which found that in entries about science topics Wikipedia contained an average of 3.86 mistakes per article--but that Britannica contained 2.92 mistakes per article, putting the "free encyclopedia anyone can edit" within earlobe flicking distance of the shelf-bending gold standard.”Wales see England

Bibliophiles and especially autodidacts have always entertained romantic notions about encyclopaedias and reference works in general but they are not, nor were they ever, infallible. I have a two volume Odhams Encyclopaedia dated 1953 in which the entry for Mormons reads, “followers of Joseph Smith, hold that Christ, Mohammed, Smith and Brigham Young are manifestations of the Deity and create souls.” Need I say this is not what Mormons believe? And, of course, there is always the classic Britannica entry for Wales from some 150 years ago which read, “Wales see England.” (Reader see right)

Perhaps Clfton Fadiman was right when he wrote in his introduction to The Treasury of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “The very idea of an encyclopaedia is crazy. Even if condensed, how can all that we know (What is “"’all’? What is ‘we know’?) be funnelled into a set of books bound in brown buckram? Absurd…”

Yet, here we are in a new century with digital versions of what once was confined to print. Today, everyone’s go-to reference work is Wikipedia and, although it has been a popular sport to sneer at it, as the Atlantic article shows, it is as reliable now as anything on your shelf, so long as you understand that whatever is on your shelf is less than perfect. These things inevitably reflect the prejudices, gaps in understanding, and errors and blind spots of even the most qualified contributors.

Encyclopaedists

When the great French Encyclopaedists of the 18th century produced their Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts, it represented the thought of the Enlightenment and, according to Denis Diderot, its aim was to change the way people think. Indeed, it not only changed the way people think, it told people what to think inasmuch as it contained “information” that best advanced the Enlightenment cause. Regarding religion in all its forms as superstition, the invention of predatory priests, these enlightened rationalists portrayed Galileo as the symbol of the age to come and the victim of the last hurrah of Catholic intransigence in the face of scientific progress.

We all know the story. Galileo said the earth orbited the sun. The church panicked as Galileo removed the earth, and thereby the pope, from the centre of the universe. Galileo was put to the Inquisition, thrown into a cold, dank cell to rot and, according to popular lore, was made to recant what reason showed to be true. From William Lecky to Carl Sagan, from Bertolt Brecht to Bertrand Russell, the intelligentsia have portrayed the events surrounding Galileo as a clash between faith and reason, and Galileo as a martyr to rational humanism. The trouble is most of what we think we know about the story is untrue.

But what has this to do with Evolution and Darwinism? The connection is neatly summed up by the science writer James Newman in his book Science and Sensibility, vol.1:

“It will never be known when man first became convinced that he was of cosmic importance, but the date this pretension was disposed of is pretty clear. The De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium of Nicolaus Corpernicus was published in 1543…Nestled in the Mathematics…was a concept that put man in his place in the cosmos, as Darwin’s concept was to put him in his place on earth…Looking backward in history, it is easy for us to see that a moving earth and sun-centred universe gravely subverted Christian theology. If man’s abode was not at the centre of things, how could he be king?” (Quoted in Six Modern Myths, Philip J Sampson, IVP, 2000)

Simply put, just as Copernicus and Galileo had dragged the world kicking and screaming out of the Middle Ages, so Darwin had pulled it further into the light of scientific rationalism. Both stories show two protagonists, faith and reason, battling over the hearts and minds of men. Both elicit from those parties strong reactions. On the one hand a determination to bury religion once and for all under a mountain of reason, on the other a settled resolve to shore up the edifice of faith against the attacks of modernity. It is this latter that I particularly wish to address. Is there something we might gain, as Christians, from the story of Galileo that helps us deal intelligently with the story of Darwin?

Galileo and Darwin: The Real Problem

When Dante Alighieri wrote his Divine Comedy his location of hell in the bowels of the earth was based on the Aristotelian model of the universe that had held sway for a thousand years. According to Aristotle, the earth was not only at the centre, but at the bottom of the universe. The spheres above the earth were increasingly perfect while all matter, the detritus of creation, fell to earth, the most self-evidently corrupt planet. Science, or what was then called natural philosophy, held this view and the church, relying on what science told it, adhered to it, seeing this model reflecting the fallen nature of man.

Rather than removing the earth from its imperial position at the centre, the new thinking promoted it from what was considered its rightful and fallen place. The irony in the story as it has come down to us is truly rich. Far from being put in his place as Newman insists, man, sitting at the apex of the evolutionary tree, has become the measure of all things. His words define “life, the universe, and everything,” and he trucks no opposition in his stately splendour. This was the dilemma faced by the church which, informed by the scientific wisdom of the day, saw Divine Judgement in the order of things.

Just as, today, some Christians worry that evolutionary science challenges the very foundations of our faith, making the Genesis account a fiction, and the story of creation, fall, and redemption insupportable, so too did the church back then have to deal with the implications for the gospel of this new thinking. The Copernican revolution was as serious an issue for them as is evolution theory to many today. But, the earth isn’t at the centre of the universe (neither is our sun but that is a question for another time), our position in the cosmos doesn’t reflect our fallen nature. In light of this, has faith left the stage, leaving it to those who “know better?” Certainly not!

Remember, the church’s view of the cosmos in Galileo’s day was shaped and coloured as much by the science of its day as by its theology. The scientific community found it just as difficult as the church to accommodate this revolutionary world-view. But accommodation had to be made and we are better and wiser for it. In the same way, the church is informed today by a scientific community that is not always in agreement over evolution theory. Back then Copernicus and Galileo were vindicated, the faith community had to change its understanding, yet faith itself remained firm, Christ is still Lord, of the explicable as well as the inexplicable. Might it be also the case today that, far from needing to fear what science tells us, the church must be prepared to consider that its understanding of things might be mistaken? That, if such a revolution were admitted today, it needn’t shake our foundations any more now than it did then?

We will disagree, of course, but what is new in that? My aim is not to persuade someone to some form of evolutionary creationism. Rather, it is to encourage an openness to new understanding, instead of the usual dogmatism that portrays as enemies those that have, historically,often been friends, from Doctor Luke in the New Testament to the Christians today who, with a scientific background, might help us to think biblically about science, and scientifically about our Bibles.

If you want to read further on this subject I recommend Six Modern Myths, by Philip J Sampson, a book that ought to be on the book shelf of every thinking Christian. I am indebted to this book for the background to this post.

Monday, 25 August 2014

The Christian in the Whovian World

Do you enjoy science fiction? I am not a great fan, although I enjoy the popular films and TV shows, and I know it brings a lot of fun into people’s lives. Science Fiction has a fascinating history and is said by some to date back to the fantastic Epic of Gilgamesh from some 2,000-3,000 BC. But modern science fiction dates back to between the 17th and 19th centuries, during the scientific revolution that brought us major discoveries in astronomy, physics, and maths. It really developed and bloomed in the 20th century.*

Famous works along the way include Thomas More’s Utopia (1516); Johannes Kepler’s The Dream (1834); Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1610-11); Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726); Jane C Loudon’s The Mummy (1836); Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864); HG Wells’ War of the Worlds (1898); Conan-Doyle’s The Lost World (1912)

The 20th Century saw the introduction of pulp magazines like Amazing Stories and Weird Tales. In the 1930s Astounding Science Fiction magazine began to introduce us to Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Robert Heinlein, and Damon Knight. 1948 saw the publication of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. In the 1950s L Ron Hubbard, a science fiction writer of dubious talent, gave us a new religion, Scientology. 1964 saw the publication of Frank Herbert’s epic Dune, and 1969 saw the production of Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Science fiction has given us the mad professor, experiments gone awry, morality tales, monsters, alien races, space flight, the inspiring hero, various dystopia, nightmare predictions, and idyllic futures. From More’s Utopia to Star Trek we have been given blue prints for a better society. From Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to Orwell’s 1984 we are served up with warnings of dire consequences issuing from man’s folly.

Perhaps its most familiar and popular claim these days is that it ‘predicts’ technological developments in the real world. You can read about ten of them here. How true it is that science follows fiction is debatable. Writers get their ideas from somewhere and if you are writing science fiction then you are bound to populate your fiction with the more speculative ideas of science. But I am interested in the impact of the genre on faith and society, something that I find increasingly troubling.

There is no God in the world of science fiction. While there are gods of a kind, drawing on the legends of various cultures, they are more like super men than truly divine. Faith is sometimes depicted but only as a personal, or cultural phenomenon. There is no overarching ‘truth’ and finally no God to whom we are accountable. The cold scientific mind of this world declares, “We have no one to help us but ourselves.” Science fiction’s foundational ‘faith’ is scientism, and latterly Darwinism, the survival of the fittest. Man is the measure of everything, destroyed by his own hubris, or stepping back from the brink of destruction to emerge as a better species. While this approach gives the genre the widest scope of possibilities for inventing worlds, it also allows it to range across a wide variety of moralities.

Earlier examples of science fiction were often traditional cautionary tales for a bourgeoning scientific age, such as Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, or political commentary such as Gulliver;s Travels, or Orwell’s 1984, and of course straight-forward adventures, such as The Lost World or, as the pulp title indicates, Fantastic Stories. From these you could learn life lessons, become politically engaged, or simply escape into another world. Today, however, there is a deliberate agenda to shape society after the image of the writers’ particular convictions and lifestyle. Three examples stand out for me.

The incredibly successful X-Men series of films has taken a familiar and relatively innocuous comic book story and infused it with an increasingly overt gay message, creating a gay parable. The film makers are quite frank about this and you can read more about it here. I am not a science fiction fan but have enjoyed these comic books as a boy and the film franchise, but I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the story lines and begin to understand why.

Another childhood favourite is the long-running British time/space series, Dr Who. I am old enough to remember watching the very first episode in black and white and following it through until it became a favourite for my grandchildren. It has enjoyed a fantastic renaissance in recent years, and I have enjoyed that too. But, again, its content seems to me to be increasingly agenda driven, again under the influence of the gay man responsible for the show’s revival, Russell T Davies. One of the Whovian characters, Captain Jack Harkness, is overtly gay and had his own spinoff series Torchwood. A now long-standing character in the Doctor’s world is a Madam Vastra, an evolved lizard/woman who lives in the Victorian era as a Sherlock Holmes type character. She enjoys a bizarre and intimate interspecies relationship with a human woman in which the lizard/woman is the ‘husband’. I remind you this is a children’s TV show.

Our thoughts and ideas, our convictions about society are being hijacked by means of seemingly shallow and harmless entertainment.

My third example is the work of the late Douglas Adams, whose antipathy to Christianity is legendary. He was brought up in a Christian home and, for the first eighteen years of his life, learned to take it pretty seriously. He then went through a familiar enough process of questioning which left him an agnostic. It was the insidious and fanatical influence of Richard Dawkins that tipped him into full-blown atheism. Be that as it may, Adams is responsible for his own life and work, something with which I am sure he would agree. When we look at the works of Douglas Adams it is as anti-Christianity as it could be. The facts are clear enough.

His Hitchhiker’s guide to the Galaxy is a complete refutation and mockery of Christian tradition and teaching. The guide itself is a barely veiled parody of the Bible, its cover message a mockery of Christian assurance with its advice to the reader DON’T PANIC!

As the story develops we meet increasingly unlikely and bizarre characters involved in the most incredible and improbable circumstances that, significantly, have no explanation beyond mere chance. All is explained by a totally different account of how the earth came to be, and how thoroughly insignificant it is in the great scheme of things - though there isn’t really a scheme except that to destroy the earth to make way for a hyper-space bypass. The purpose for which it was “created” is as a computer to calculate the meaning of life, and whose calculations become increasingly comic and futile since life has no meaning. The message is clear, whatever you think is true isn’t and, whatever you think might be the most absurd and pointless truth is. Indeed, there is no truth, only existence then non-existence, as a brief encounter with a deluded whale falling to earth demonstrates.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency very effectively parodies faith. Gently is a detective who claims to solve crimes by means of recognising the interconnectedness of everything. The problem is, while he sees connections, others see nothing more than random facts and coincidences. Faith is writ large as the object of fun in this story. The cynical and dishonest Gently appears to have had an epiphany in which he comes to see this interconnectedness, which becomes his mission. The reader is meant to see reality through everyone else’s eyes, and they see random events. Here is the sinner converted to a delusion and reality represented by the sensible unbeliever. From Gently’s misguided faith, which seems real enough, that by some accident of Quantum Mechanics everything is meaningfully connected, to the ridiculous faith of an Electric Monk who seems to be programmed to be gullible, we are meant to see faith as untenable, even ridiculous.

Traditionally, science fiction can be said to be cautionary or aspirational. Today and in its most popular forms it is becoming insidious, its writers and proponents having a clear and clearly identifiable agenda to use science fiction as a vehicle for bringing into people’s lives philosophies that will be normalised by stealth, untested because it is entertainment.

Christians can cherish romantic notions of how our faith is going to be tested. We read and listen to accounts of believers, from Polycarp in the 2nd century to Christians in Syria today, who have been forced to choose between denying Christ, or being executed. We may one day face such a test ourselves, but there is another, more subtle test with us here today. As the world embraces diversity, choice, multi-culturalism, liberal values, an increasing intolerance of faith, and a sense of having no one to help us, guide us, or censure us but ourselves, Christians should ask what is influencing us? What values do I hold most dear? What ideas are being subtly introduced into my thinking, and that of my children, forming my worldview without my conscious consent?

Christianity is not the joyless, proscriptive religion many non-Christians imagine. Indeed, I have never said ‘yes’ anywhere so much as I do in church. The Christian faith does, however, speak truth about the world and to the world. It asks us to ‘choose this day whom you will serve’, cautions us against false and futile philosophies and points us to the author of all truth.

In the end, it is what we have done with knowledge of him that will be the test. The world is an incredible place to explore and enjoy. The world’s philosophies can be the greatest obstacle to our realising God’s truth and nothing insinuates the world’s philosophies into our lives and thinking better than the books we read, and the films we watch. By all means read, read widely, read for enjoyment, for fun, but read and view intelligently, guarding your hearts and minds from anything that threatens our faith and our relationship with Jesus. Be discerning and recognise that every day our resolve is being tested, not by a gun to our heads, but with a back door into our hearts and minds in what influences us.

 

*Science Fiction is now the fourth most lucrative genre in the publishing world, worth some $590million: 5th is horror worth $80m; 3rd, religion, $720m; 2nd, Crime/mystery, $728m; 1st, Romance/erotica $1.44Billion. Read more here.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Balancing Faith and Culture

In my role as a leading figure in Reachout Trust, a ministry to the cults, and given my Welsh nationality, I have drawn comments and questions on discussion boards about the Welsh national cultural event known as the Eisteddfod. People are puzzled that even “so-called Christian leaders” attend and take part in what is so “obviously a Pagan festival.” It is culturally Celtic (the first ‘c’ is a hard ‘c’, not like the Scottish football club) has a circle of druids, an Archdruid, flower dances, oak leaves, a sword, a stone, and a throne – O,my word it just gets worse.

This year (1-9 August 2014) it is being held in the West Wales town of llanelli (Llan means church and Elli is the name of a leading Christian figure associated with the place, hence Llan – the church of, Elli – St Elli) You can get a lot of useful information about the Eisteddfod, its history and form here. It is a festival that celebrates Welsh language and culture and is conducted in Welsh, though very welcoming and accessible to non-Welsh speakers. But there is also an international Eisteddfod which is multilingual, multicultural, welcomes visitors and contestants from all over the world and is the biggest cultural festival in Europe.

When people ask the answer is always the same. It has nothing to do with authentic druidism, and what people see as ‘pagan’ is nothing more than the fanciful cultural trappings of an otherwise innocent cultural festival. It celebrates culture and talent in many forms, music, dance, poetry and literature, academic achievements, civic service, charity work. There is a regular Christian presence at the festival and every opportunity to share the gospel. Still, there will be those who will struggle with the question of faith and culture, some taking the purist view.

With our very seasons and times named with the names of pagan gods (think days of the week, months and seasons of the year) and pagan customs marking our every day lives, from the wedding ring, through carols, flowers on graves, and so much more, how do we balance faith and culture?

Simply because something has a pagan origin does not mean that it is sinful to use it, even for a religious purpose. The early church met in houses but when Christianity became an official religion of the empire Christians modelled their public buildings on what was already there in society, the basilica. At a time when your social status was reflected in your dress, church officials dressed like government officials. Today, when we see priests wearing church vestments, we are looking at the continuation of this form of dress which originated with the Roman nobility.

Our practices, dress and customs, both religious and civic, have developed over generations and reflect that history, as also our attitudes. People who complain today about drums and guitars in church should realise that the church organ, so beloved of many, was seen as worldly when it was brought into the church a thousand years ago. Think of the so-called gothic revival of the nineteenth century, which has bequeathed us a heritage of cold, drafty and pretty but pretty useless buildings, but at the time regarded as God honouring.

Even today, we find ourselves doing things that our forebears might find odd. How would those of just a generation or two ago make of our casual dress in so many churches today? And what do we regard as acceptable today that might appear unacceptable to those that come after us?  It might be said that culture both helps and harms the church, but either way culture contributes to how the church is defined and how Christians live.

When it comes to a Welsh cultural festival Christians must, as with so much of being ‘in the world,’ decide for themselves what to get involved in and how involved to get. We can’t avoid a day of the week named for Saturn in a month of the year named for Augustus, or an innocent but ultimately ‘unbiblical’ birthday celebration. We can be wise in our choices as we interact with our own cultures. As for the church in the world, Christianity has a history of ‘baptising’ pre-existing customs into the church, from Christmas, through Harvest Thanksgiving, to music and the way we dress.

What is important is that we are slow to judge, eager to learn, anxious to understand, wise and charitable in our judgements, and honouring to God and culture in our choices. A religious attitude doesn’t sanctify us any more than customs need desecrate.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Standing Firm and Staying Strong

I have been challenged a lot recently by the question of discipleship. Its a major theme as  we seek a way forward to maturity for my church and, as a leadership, we take seriously the oversight of the people in our care.

It isn’t easy being a Christian. The challenges are great as we strive to get along together with other Christians, people of God’s choosing and not ours. The sacrifices couldn’t be greater as we are called to die to ourselves and live to the Lord, being in but not of the world. We are not our own, but belong to another, and growing in our discipleship finds us almost daily having to choose a different path, rearrange our priorities, see the world quite differently to how our neighbours see it.

In our house group we recently looked at Paul’s exhortations in Philippians 4 and I think there is an example and a lesson here for us. He writes to two people in the Philippian church who had found a reason to quarrel and pleads with them to get along:

“I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, loyal yoke-fellow, to help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow-workers, whose names are in the book of life.” (Philippians 4:2-3)

It has always popular to cast Paul as a misogynist but here, as in many other places in his letters, we find evidence to the contrary. He urges these women to get along not least because of who they are, and because of what they mean to him. These are women who have worked alongside Paul in the cause of the gospel, women he regards as “fellow-workers” in mission and church planting.

Sometimes we can forget who we are and revert to our old, worldly ways. When we do that we find our daily walk with God a struggle every step, our spiritual life suffers and, more to the point, we become ineffectual in ministry just like Euodia and Syntyche. Like these two women, we become a burden instead of a benefit. We can draw others into the orbit of our distractions, and the church becomes poorly served by us and them.

Paul goes on in the next few verses to describe the Christian life in which we are to:

Stand firm in the Lord (v.1)

Rejoice in the Lord – always (v.4)

Be gentle and not anxious (v.v.5-6)

Be thankful and prayerful (v.6)

Thinking about what is right and good (v.8)

Putting into practice what we learn (v.9)

Being content (v.11)

All this becomes a mountain to climb when our minds and hearts are focussed on ourselves. We don’t know what the quarrel between these women was about but Paul clearly felt it more than capable of being resolved and urged them to resolve it. They simply couldn’t go on in this way. There are times for everyone when we must put our work down and seek rest, refuge, when we must refocus, examine ourselves (2 Cor.13:5) remember who we are, what we are about.

Paul reminds us of these very things earlier in his letter, where he urges us to imitate Christ in his humility (Philip.2:1-11); continue to work out our salvation (Philip.2:12-13); having confidence in Christ alone (Philip.3:7-11), and to press on to the goal (Philip.3:12-15) which is:

“Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ., who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious bodies. Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!” (Philip.3:20-4:1)

We stand firm and stay strong in our Christian walk first by remembering who we are, citizens of a heavenly kingdom, subjects of a heavenly king who won for us that citizenship at great cost. By remaining firm in the knowledge that his power, a power that will bring everything under his control, is the same power that is daily making us fully fit for that heavenly citizenship; this work is the work of discipling, the work of the church in the life of the disciple.

Christians are not an audience come to appreciate the preacher, not customers come to test the service of the church. Christians are the church and the opportunity to serve is ours. In light of this vision, this reward surely we can stand firm and stay strong, overcoming every temptation to act like it’s all about me and agreeing with each other, “in the Lord.” As Paul wrote:

“Forgetting what is behind, and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.

All of us who are mature should take such a view.” (Philip.3:14-15)